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Lakshya is back on the mark

With China’s Li Shifeng unable to return Lakshya Sen’s booming body smash, the Indian shuttler fell to the floor in sheer joy, and relief, at the Markin-MacPhail Centre in Calgary. His forehead, and the freshly coloured golden strands of hair, touching the court, Lakshya pumped his fists to indicate victory at the $420,000 Canada Open on Sunday, his first title in 11 months.

Lakshya Sen hits a return against Kidambi Srikanth during their men's singles match at the Indonesia Open badminton tournament in Jakarta.(AFP) PREMIUM
Lakshya Sen hits a return against Kidambi Srikanth during their men’s singles match at the Indonesia Open badminton tournament in Jakarta.(AFP)

It’s been a long time coming for Lakshya, who underwent surgery, recovered from injuries, saw a change of coach which consequently resulted in a drastic loss of form in the past year. Lakshya reached the zenith of his young career last year when he won the India Open, the historic Thomas Cup in Bangkok, reached the finals of German and the All England Open before claiming gold at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in August.

But thereafter, the 21-year-old underwent surgery for deviated nasal septum leading to frequent illnesses and allergies. Recovery was expected to take three months but instead took much longer.

“It led to many allergies, stomach upsets, fever, throat infection,” said Lakshya. Vimal Kumar, Sen’s childhood coach and head coach of Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA) where the world No.19 trains, added: “One day during a tournament he would be absolutely fine, the next day he would have fever and other issues.”

In addition to septoplasty, which reduced his immunity, the Commonwealth Games champion also suffered from shoulder and knee injuries which affected his performance. “Lakshya has a tendency to be injury prone. These issues constantly got the better of him,” added Vimal, who is a former chief national coach.

During this time, Lakshya also split with South Korean coach Yoo Yong-sung in September 2022 due to communication issues. All these issues resulted in a lack of confidence and hence loss of form for the Thomas Cup champion.

In 11 individual tournaments this year, Lakshya exited in the first two rounds as many as eight times, reaching the final, and winning (as he did on Sunday), only once. From a career-high ranking of world No.6 last year, Lakshya dropped to No.25 in March.

Enter Anup Sridhar

The exit of Yoo forced PPBA to bring in former India international Anup Sridhar to coach Lakshya in January. While the results didn’t come immediately, Sen started showing signs of improvement.

“We have not been rushing him and have set achievable goals. Even though he had no titles in this period, he earned many victories against top players like Loh Kean Yew, Lee Zii Jia and Li. He could have also won the Thailand Open where he reached the semis. We have been patient, stuck to our programme and did not change it just because of one or two losses,” said Anup.

Another decision PPBA took was to bring back Deckline Leitao, who was Lakshya’s strength and conditioning coach since childhood. Leitao was also Saina Nehwal’s trainer when the Olympic bronze medallist became world No.1 and reached the World Championships final in 2015 under Vimal and has also assisted Ashwini Ponnappa in the past.

Yoo removed Leitao from the programme as the Korean “had certain ideas about physical training” and felt Leitao’s approach didn’t suit Lakshya. But the Bengaluru-based Goan was brought in two months back to aid Lakshya.

Having recovered from his injuries, his breathing issues resolved after septoplasty and settling in with his new coach, Lakshya finally turned a corner. In the past week, Lakshya ended up beating World Championship silver medallist Kunlavut Viditsarn of Thailand, Spain Masters champion Kenta Nishimoto and reigning All England champion Li among others in the span of five days.

After winning the first game in the final against fifth seed Li on Sunday, Lakshya was down four game points in the second. The 21-year-old turned it around by winning six consecutive points to win the Super 500 crown, his first title in 11 months, 21-18, 22-20 in 50 minutes.

“I never believed that I was losing this game. I wanted to give it everything. I never really lost hope even when I was down (in the second game) which is why I was able to pull it off,” said Lakshya, who became only the second Indian men’s singles player to win the Canada Open after B Sai Praneeth (2016). “The key was to remain patient in crucial moments.”

Despite Lakshya’s display, Anup feels his ward is still a few months away from his peak. “He has got his form back, but we are still progressing. He is still getting better. Earlier, he tried to push too soon. That didn’t work out but now we are focussed on continuous and gradual progress,” said Anup.

Having enjoyed a “nice dinner” at an Indian restaurant to celebrate the victory, Lakshya and his team fly out to Council Bluffs to play the US Open this week where the Indian is seeded third and will play Finnish Kalle Koljonen in the opener.

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